Sauna (2008, dir. Antti-Jussi Annila)
During the late 16th century, the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian Empire went to war. During this period, Sweden wished to expand its borders and found an enemy with the Russians, whose religious hierarchy clashed with Sweden’s. Eventually King Gustav of Sweden and Russian Emporer Ivan the IVth came to a tenuous peace that hinged on a rewriting of the borders of the two lands. A joint cartography mission was established with one group heading south, the other north, with plans to meet in the middle. The group heading north never made it to the rendezvous and this film speculates as to why.
Knut and Erik Spore are the Swedish half to the Northern bound cartography team, mapping the new boundaries of the two lands through desolate plains and rotting forests. Erik is haunted by his years fighting in the war against Russia and would like to have nothing to do with their partners on this mission. On their journey, a disturbing incident occurs where Erik discovers a family housing them are Russian sympathizers. With the Russian half of the mission camped out of sight, Erik brutally stabs the peasant father to death and Knut, after lusting over the daughter, locks her in a cellar to be abandoned. A few miles down river they come to the swamp, an area no one is anxious to explore. In they go, only to find a village not recorded on any of the previous maps, full of elderly peasants who seem unable to die. Sitting in the midst of the bog, is a plan white sauna house, which seems to beckon young Knut and troubles Erik. It is inevitable that sins will paid out in this barren place.
Sauna is a masterpiece. I am repeatedly amazed at the skill with which small budget, foreign language pictures shame the tripe being cranked out of the Hollywood machine. It is apparent that there is a strong historical spine to this film that I am frustrated to not be fully aware of. It makes sense that our social studies textbooks focus on the key regions and more profound empires, but when seeing films like this it makes me wish I knew more specifics about many of the overlooked societies.
There is a strong division between the religious beliefs of the Russian and Swedes, with Erik discovering Russian Orthodox imagery of the Virgin Mary in a peasant’s house being enough for him to stab the man over seventy time in the face. The Russian military dress is much more regal, in contrast to the plain leather and straps of the Swedish soldiers. It is apparent that these cultural groups find little to agree on. That is until the discovery of this mysterious village in the swamp. What is brought out of all the men is the deeper, ingrained pagan superstitions of the region. Christianity becomes a veneer lain over their peoples, but what they truly fear are the primal evils that have been in the earth for millenia.
Sauna is the story of soldiers burdened by sins, committed without thought. Once removed from their sins, they begin to contemplate them and the guilt devours them in the end. All of this is dressed a pared down supernatural motif that refrains from playing its cards until the final thirty minutes of the film. The horror revealed in the end is magnificent in its bleakness and underscored by a comment made by a young Russian soldier earlier in the film. He posits that fire is a cleansing force, so would it not be more appropriate for Hell to be a place covered in filth.
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe
Director von Trier wants you to not simply be unsettled, but he wants you to be in a place where you are completely uncomfortable. Once he has you in that place he can begin to burrow under your skin and really get to work. The opening sequence of his latest opus, Antichrist is designed to do just that. The soundtrack is blaring, the images are stark and…um, yes that is actual penetration you’re seeing. And that heavily jarring scene is key to understanding what von Trier is trying to do in this film.
The plot concerns an unnamed couple (Gainsbourg and Dafoe) who are in the midst of orgasm when their toddler son falls out the window of their apartment to his death. Off screen, the wife spends time in a mental hospital and her husband wants to help her work through her grief. His motives are a bit suspect; does he truly want to help her or does he simply not want to be reminded of his own guilt? His desperate need to heal her leads them to their secluded cabin in the woods, nicknamed Eden.
Von Trier is playing his traditional game of taking a genre and twisting it around into something that suits his own aesthetics. The horror in the film is slow burning and abstract and, when the gore does occur, it is much harsher than American audiences are used to. I was reminded of Michael Haenke’s Funny Games (especially the American remake)in how it was intentional designed to play out slowly and then completely exceed the expectations of violence in the audience. Von Trier is setting out not only to antagonize an audience wanting to be spoon fed horror tropes but also to offend the film “elite” he see saws back and forth with as “darling” and “dismissed”.
The core of the film is less supernatural and more metaphorical. It’s intentional that the couple are never named and end up in a Grimm-like forest complete with talking animals. While superficially it is about one husband’s total lack of respect for his wife as an adult individual. On a larger stage it saying a lot about sexuality, guilt we associate with our children, and humanity’s relation to the world around it. Definitely not a film for the faint of heart but containing much more beyond the fervor surrounding it.
The House of the Devil (2009)
Directed by Ti West
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig
Horror has become ironic, much to its detriment. The slasher films of the 1980s began to peel away at the true horrific atmosphere of horror, with characters such as Jason and Freddy becoming cartoon characters. Wes Craven’s Scream franchise pushed horror further away from the realm of providing actual scares and the torture porn borne out of the Saw series put the nail in the coffin. Young director Ti West makes a push to return to the slow burning tension of pre-ironic horror by composing this retro scare flick.
The film focuses on Samantha (Donahue), a college sophomore just signing a lease for an apartment she can’t afford. The landlady is played by veteran actress Dee Wallace, best known for her roles in ET and the classic horror flicks The Howling and Cujo. Samantha, desperate for money, answers a flier on campus asking for a babysitter. She’s driven to house in the woods on the outskirts of town by her friend (Gerwig) who becomes suspicious when the owner (Noonan) reveals that the babysitting gig was not what it seems. Samantha will be in charge of watching the family’s elderly grandmother while they are out. Samantha agrees to the change in terms and so begins the slow boil of the picture, ending in a macabre satanic denouement.
The most jarring feature of the film is its aesthetics. West purposefully shot the film on 16mm to make it resemble the low budget horror films of his childhood. In addition, the plot capitalizes on the “satanic panic” that many of us 80s babies remember parents developing a paranoiac fear of. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is kept subtle, never going over the top until the final 10 minutes. West is definitely a student of this genre showing his expertise all the way down to the design of the opening and ending credits. A great film that shows its love for the old school horror film without having to drench itself in irony.